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Monday, November 22, 2010

Just Say No, You Rich Elite Individualist, You

The day after tomorrow is the single busiest airline travel day in the U.S.; it is also National Opt-Out Day, a grass-roots effort to encouraged travelers to "just say no" to scanners, and to oblige themselves, TSA agents, and whatever embarrassed witness might be around to deal, face-to-face, with the limits of decency and respect in the name of safety. I'm not flying on this Wednesday, but I will be flying 10 days later. Assuming Opt-Out Day doesn't manage to bring the whole misconceived program to a standstill, I'll be asked, at one airport or another, to be scanned or groped...and I'll choose the latter. Because then at least I'll be able to see the person who is treating me like a bit player in our national act of "security theater." I won't be just a piece of meat.

There are a lot of good arguments about the scanners out there, and about how this latest measure by the TSA is something of tipping point as well. I know it has put me in a strange place. I'm a communitarian, a believer in the common good and collective projects, blah blah blah. For me, so long as I can see clear as to how any given state action is or attempts to be as local and as democratic as we can make it, I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt, and want to work with it to improve it. My experiences with government flunkies have been, across the board, far more positive than my experiences with corporate flunkies, which just provides more support for my own sensibilities. So to hear myself sounding like some libertarian, reading Tyler Cowen and taking seriously whether or not resisting the invasive procedures of the TSA is really the "freedom-enhancing path" or not, considering that we are locked into a government subsidized air travel system and so forth....well, it's just weird. (I tell myself that, for me, it's not so much about rights as about my dignity as a person and a citizen, but Cowen already has that covered, asking if a liberationist upside of the scans-vs.-pat-downs dilemma might not be "to have Americans shift to a more European attitude on nude bodies," which I suppose is a good question, but like the best libertarian arguments also takes your eyes off the ball.)

Daniel Drezner's survey of the whole affair makes a couple of things clear: first, that those who are complaining loudest are, of course, those who fly the most, and they consist of relatively small, even "elite," segment of the American population; and second, that the pattern of outrage only reveals something discomforting--that this complaint is about procedures that have, in essence, been part of the standard toolkit for years...only they have involved minorities, the poor, the marginalized. Arguably, all we've seeing is and act of government humiliation "that has hit the professional class." No wonder some people find the whole level of outrage orchestrated, overwrought, precious and pretentious; haven't we already long since accepted that this is what modern life is like, and are we really going to get all uptight now that it's frequent flyers paying the price along with everyone else?

I'll grant, all those arguments are relevant--but I deny that they are persuasive. Yes, perhaps behind all my (small r) republican talk about "respect," "decency," and "civility," there's just a uptight member of middle class not wanting anyone to take a look of nude pictures of me or my family. And perhaps behind my concern for the dehumanizing, impersonal, and anti-(small d) democratic lack of trust and direct interaction which such mass procedures entail, I'm just a defensive individualist, sick and tired of having to untie and then put back on my shoes. But I don't think so. I think there really are crucial principles at stake here, and not just self-interested ones. I say that as someone who, admittedly, hasn't been active in stirring up awareness about and resistance to the often disturbing, sometimes downright indefensible way in which we have conducted the apparently endless "war on terror"--but neither have I been unaware of it, and in any case, is it really a knock-down argument against a position to note that said position was only taken up when it presents itself literally right before you? Surely not. For better and/or for worse, we don't live in a direct democracy, and we don't exist in a truly localized, mutually supportive, community-based world: we live in a world a complexity and specialization, where decisions are made by those with the power (and, we hope, the know-how) to make them, and we have to express our thoughts when and where we can. In this place, in this time, we can. Maybe those of us paranoid about radiation waves and stolen nude scans and all the rest really are, on some level, just being forced out of our comfort zones. But so what? It won't be a bad thing, I believe, to have to step out of that zone, look another person in the face, and politely confront what it means to be disrespected by one's own government. If those of us who are fortunate enough to fly every once in a while--much less those of us whose jobs unfortunately make it necessary--can learn something about that disrespect (and oblige the person providing it to learn about it as well), maybe we'll be able to speak with greater authority the next time any one of the innumerable compromises we are always making comes up.


Anonymous said...

It's not hard to remain unconvinced by Drezner, Masket, and Serwer. This isn't a "class" issue. Many conservatives (and independents and even some Democrats) would have little problem with waterboarding, wire-tapping, or holding without trial an educated, reasonably affluent Muslim, if said Muslim were a known terrorist. Americans aren't more outraged by the TSA procedures because they impact whites and yuppies. They're outraged because the people in question--whites, yes, but also Mexican-, African- and Asian-Americans--are not terrorists and, in most cases, present absolutely no reason to be suspected of being terrorists. I suppose there's also a matter of scale and effectiveness. The US has waterboarded three known terrorists and gained valuable intelligence from it. In the past three weeks, thousands--maybe tens of thousands--of US citizens have been virtually disrobed and exposed to radiation or physically groped, and how many terrorist plots have been foiled?

David Watkins said...

It seems to me that as someone who believes that individual rights can and should in some cases be weighed a a democratic effort to advance the common good, you have a particular interest in not seeing it not done in such a horrifically pointless and stupid (and, regardless of majority support, fundamentally anti-democratic) way.

John Mansfield said...

I wish there could be some appreciation for the idea that enjoyment of liberty is worth a bit of bloodshed. We're able to do that in observance of military sacrifice, but we need a Citizens' Day to go along with Veterans' Day. We need to acknowledge individuals who suffered ills due to our respect for due process and other civil liberties—build monuments to them perhaps—and feel gratitude that though a price has been exacted, we have our freedoms and they are worth much more than they cost.